DESIGNER INTERVIEW: Discover Damsel White Label by Natalie Harris

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Tradition for the sake of tradition has been sidelined in favor of showcasing the personality of the bride and the groom."

I first met Natalie Harris at FGI-Houston's mixer event at Straits restaurant in City Centre.  I approached her to tell her about and she showed me her cool lookbook for Damsel White Label. I really liked her design aesthetic for bridal. I like to call it edgy and rebellious, but it's also fun! Natalie invited me to view her runway show at the Houston Bridal Extravaganza a few weeks ago and I had the chance to interview Natalie on her career as a Bridal designer. 

Are you from Houston originally? If not, where are you from?
I'm from a cornfield in Carroll County, Indiana (approx. halfway between Indy and Chicago). My Dad is a beef and grain farmer. 

How long have you been designing?
I've been doing custom bridal since 2006, and launched the first season of Damsel White Label in 2013.

Are you self-taught or did you go to school for design? If school, where did you go and why?
Purdue University was very close to my hometown. I debated between there and the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. My junior year in high school, I attended Purdue’s student runway showcase, and I was hooked. Runway is like designer crack. But Purdue was a great choice because of the equal focus on business and the art of designing. I studied not only draping, but also retailing, marketing, accounting, etc. I knew I wanted a more commercial approach to design. In fact, I never really identified myself as an artist, per se, until (after some arm twisting) I opened my space at Silver Street Studios. 

Fashion is a funny business, as it is both manufacturing and art and when you add in the bridal element, that’s an entire industry as well!

How did you come up with the name Damsel White Label?
It took years. I wanted something that felt both luxurious and rebellious, delicate and bold. It finally came to me in a brainstorm after checking out a Diesel Black Gold runway show! The cocktail collection I named Damsel Maids, and I like how that hints at some Arthurian court. It's sort of noble.

What are your goals for Damsel White Label?
Mostly I’m just out to solve a problem – the utter lack of innovation and excitement in bridal fashion. Our timing is fortunate, as the trend toward hyper-personalization and DIY continues to be huge when it comes to planning a wedding. Tradition for the sake of tradition has been sidelined in favor of showcasing the personality of the bride and groom. I love that. I love being able to offer – truly offer – just about anything they can imagine.

Why Bridal fashion vs other design niches?
Part of it is the challenge, (or ego?) and honor of dressing a woman in a dress that epitomizes her style for all posterity. There was so much room for creativity that the bridal industry left untouched.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I just use the collection as my outlet to experiment. I’m constantly playing with new techniques, new fabrics, & new details. In the past year, I've added custom textile design/printing and rhinestone embellishment. Currently, I’m working on designing my own lace pattern. I have a bride that wants skull lace. How rock and roll is that!? I was like, “YES, PLEASE?!”. 

However, in the midst of all that experimentation, my muse is always in front of mind. The Montrose/Heights/EaDo (distinct neighborhoods of Houston) brides who are old enough to be confident in themselves.  I describe the collection as a fusion of Grace Kelly and Gwen Stefani, and I think that sums it up beautifully. It’s about the balance of pushing the envelope, but with sophistication.

How many collections do you do a year?
In theory, on, but when it came time for Spring, I was too full of new ideas. Two seasons a year is typical for bridal, though most small lines just do Fall.

Any plans to do something other than Bridal fashions?
Actually, I've been sprinkling more casual dresses into Damsel Maids. I’m starting to feel like it could spin off into a day dress collection. I despise the concept of bridesmaids' dresses as a one-time-wear garment, and the existing styles are all great cocktail styles, but it makes sense to offer something for the less formal affairs as well. I also want to create some print ties & pocket squares for men as well. 

Do you design any of your own clothes?
Only formal wear. It’s hilarious how little personal interest I take in sportswear and day to day fashion. Though, if I had the time, I’d just make myself a closet full of maxi and sundresses with random, quirky prints; like a squid or vintage circus posters. 

How did you link up with the Houston Brides' Bridal Extravaganza?
Back when I was engaged, I attended, as the thousands do. I also worked for another designer and then a bridal retailer before launching on my own line, so I was very familiar with the show. I knew it was where I needed to be, and I took a big risk to do it the first time.

What are your takeaways from showing at the Bridal Extravaganza? Was this your first runway show? If not, where have you shown before?

January was actually my first bridal runway show. It was the full DWL collection and it was at the Bridal Extravaganza.  I've shown at market in Chicago and Dallas, and came to realize that I understand the brides locally, here in Houston. It’s always amusing to note the brides I repel, as well as the ones I attract. I only get enthusiastic brides because the super traditional girls sometimes get scared by things like neon pink veils. Haha! I’m working to prove myself here first (in Houston), because store owners nationwide are still skeptical that my target client exists. The big brands will continue to lead the marketplace with their standard fare, but the trends I embrace are only gaining momentum. We’re in talks with a handful of stores now to open accounts this year.

Do you do custom gowns?
The Damsel White Label line is customizable, and I also offer a full Haute Custom Design service. I launched the collection, and it mainly served to grow my custom business. Go figure, haha!

Do you have any tips for new designers?
Maybe 10% of what I do is based upon what I learned in school. The rest is what I learned through observation and experience from working for established brands. I have a long list of things I knew I would do the opposite way from my last employer, but learned about how bridal manufacturers operate even in a retail setting. I have organizational systems in place like that of my first employer – pattern cataloging, accounting software, etc. Statistically, fashion entrepreneurs are doomed to fail. Appreciate the depth of that challenge and be prepared. Then expect your business to be a constant evolution of challenges and solutions.

Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about you and DWL?
We’re a locally manufactured brand! I love employing Houstonians and avoiding the hassles and ethical dilemmas inherent in manufacturing overseas. No designer is an island! Behind every quirky creative type, there’s a Type A to keep it all together. That’s my husband. Our toddler son pulls his weight, too.

You can follow Natalie and Damsel White Label on the following social media sites:
Twitter: (note, there's no "i")

Visit the Studio (by appointment evenings, weekend appts available):

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